Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Good Search

By Jacqueline Marino

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  When it comes to AIDS vaccine research, there are two camps of believers: Those who think an AIDS vaccine is possible and those who think it's possible if people risk their lives for it.

During the last 15 years of AIDS, the National Institutes of Health has funded 40 human trials in which scientists have injected 2,200 volunteers with "safe" AIDS vaccines that do not contain the live virus. Frustrated by the mostly disappointing results, a group of doctors and advocates in Chicago volunteered last month to risk HIV infection by being injected with a vaccine made of a weakened strain of the virus.

The larger scientific benefit, they say, far outweighs the risk to their own lives.

Many critics of that approach, however, including two researchers at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, believe it's possible to produce an effective vaccine without putting lives on the line. In fact, Drs. Julia Hurwitz and Karen Slobod have spent the last four years developing what may be the best hope yet for an AIDS vaccine.

"We have a strategy that we think is safe and that we think is different than other strategies being employed," Hurwitz says. "It hasn't been done before, and it needs to be done to have an effective vaccine."

The deadly AIDS virus mutates so rapidly scientists don't know how many strains exist. Ideally, an effective AIDS vaccine would fool the immune system into thinking it was the virus, thereby mobilizing it to fight off the actual AIDS virus if it were ever introduced into the body.

Dr. Mark Grabowsky of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases explains that most researchers have tried to mimic just one HIV that would be effective against all strains. Those efforts have mostly failed. St. Jude's vaccine differs because it is designed to protect individuals against at least 23 different strains of the virus, not just one.

"We believe those vaccine trials are disappointing because individuals go out and they see a different HIV that's not represented and they're in trouble because they're not protected against all these other HIV isolates out in the community," says Hurwitz, of St. Jude's department of immunology.

"Ours is the first vaccine that kind of starts addressing that question of how can we deal with all that variety," continues Slobod, of the infectious-diseases department.

Dr. Peter Doherty, chairman of St. Jude's department of immunology whose Nobel prize-winning research stimulated new thinking about the basic nature of immunity, calls the potential vaccine "an interesting approach tailored to the disease as it occurs locally in Memphis." He says the scientific community respects the way Hurwitz and Slobod have brought the vaccine to this stage.

In a cramped laboratory on the fifth floor of St. Jude's research tower, Hurwitz and Slobod have carried the vaccine from its inception to the first phase of human research. While other research efforts have been funded by pharmaceutical companies, St. Jude has been the only sponsor of this vaccine. Partnerships with pharmaceutical companies will be needed, however, for subsequent studies.

The vaccine would be the first part of a larger regimen that would include several booster shots, which are still in various stages of development, before full protection against HIV would be achieved.

Grabowsky says he is "an enthusiastic supporter" of St. Jude's approach. Slobod, 36, a medical doctor who treats children with AIDS, and Hurwitz, 43, a Ph.D. in biology who studied under Doherty at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, are "champions of this vaccine," Grabowsky says.

The strategy for the AIDS vaccine is the same one used for the smallpox vaccine, which eradicated smallpox worldwide. It does not contain the actual AIDS virus, so there is no chance that volunteers will contract the disease.

St. Jude is currently seeking between nine and 18 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 27 years old who are not infected with HIV. Interested individuals should call the Department of Infectious Diseases at 495-3486 or e-mail polyenvl@stjude.org


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